Helmed by Alex Winter—yes, as in the Bill & Ted star who’s not Keanu Reeves—the newly-released HBO Documentary Showbiz Kids chronicles both the carrot and stick of child stardom by handing the mic to current and former child stars to recount their stories in their own words. In the ballpark of 90 minutes long, the Platonic ideal of documentary length, Showbiz Kids is a rightfully unvarnished look at the burden of child stardom that’s an excellent intro for those who’ve never given much thought to the topic before.
It’s a great introductory exploration, and that comes at the cost of really having much of a thesis. From following two aspiring present-day kid actors to speaking with Vaudeville and silent film era child star Diana Serra Cary, who made over $1.5 million a year (adjusted for inflation, $22.4 million) at the height of her “Baby Peggy” fame, Showbiz Kids spans over a century. With its tight run time and sprawling nature, the documentary often touches on an intriguing point only to drop it and move on instead of digging deeper. When interviewee Mara Wilson, best known for starring in Matilda, mentions that her mother passed away while the film was in post-production, the documentary jumps to the next subject so fast it practically induces whiplash.
Interviews often make or break a documentary, and there are some really great interviews here. Entertainment docs do often have an advantage in that their subjects are entertainers, and therefore generally not the sort that will clam up on camera. While a lot of the featured interviews are heartfelt and insightful—Evan Rachel Wood narrates her experience growing up on screen with a particularly remarkable eloquence—the selection of a few of the interviews feels a little on the random side. Jada Pinkett Smith, who got her start in her late teens, feels very much the odd one out, particularly without Willow and Jaden to make her segments at least comparable to others featuring child actor-parent duos.
After starting with a chronological approach, opening with Cary discussing the early US film industry, the structuring of Showbiz Kids becomes somewhat scattered. It’s hard for it not to be, considering that from there, the next oldest featured interview subject, Todd Bridges, rose to prominence in the late 1970s as Willis Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes. From there, coverage is relatively consistent, with Wil Wheaton and Henry Thomas to speak to the 1980s, Milla Jovovich and Mara Wilson to speak to the 90s, Evan Rachel Wood to speak to the 2000s, and Cameron Boyce to speak to the 2010s. While many of stars’ stories have at least some things in common, overall their trajectories and experiences run an incredibly wide range with the only thread connecting them all being the early start to their careers.
Making the choice to avoid the narrator route, Showbiz Kids sort of sticks with one interview subject for a while and then jumps to another when that person makes a comment akin to something mentioned by another interviewee, and uses the similar statements as a bridge. “Look, two dots, I connected them to make a line!” it proudly declares. Indeed, you did. Well done, son.
Considering the long-gestating nature of this project—it’s been in the works long enough that both the eldest interviewee, Cary, and the youngest, Boyce, tragically passed away in the span between filming and the documentary’s July 15 premiere—it honestly feels like Winter and colleagues got a bunch of good material, but only afterward sat down and tried to fit it into one narrative and realized they bit off far more than they bargained for.
Showbiz Kids is a technically polished doc in the sense that it makes good use of archival material in addition to its featured interviews, but if you stop and really think about the structure you realize it’s a 95-minute-long highlight reel. One that’s well worth a watch, to be sure, but also something that feels like it could have been something greater with more careful planning. It’s an engaging documentary, but when it ended, I wished it had been a docuseries. It feels like tasting samples without the option to invest in the full-size dish—one of the relatively rare cases where the material feels, if anything, overly condensed instead of stretched.
Header Image Source: HBO